Monday, December 31, 2007

Using the Library

I've been trying to get back to using our local library more. I used to be a big user of the library, but getting in and out of the library with little kids is such a pain that I stopped. This article about generation Y's return to the library was interesting. Here are 5 neat fairly new things I like about using the library:
  1. One of Jeff Scott's tips was to use Library Elf. I just signed up and it's pretty cool. Sort of like for library books. It can monitor all of the library cards in your family from one account. It will email and text message you before books become overdue, when items on hold are available, etc. It even makes an RSS feed available to you.
  2. Both of the two closest branches to us (Jimmie B. Keel and Austin Davis) have free wifi access now. But the wifi was just about crippled by the restrictions they place on it, at least when I tried it. Jimmy B. Keel didn't allow https access at all, so I couldn't access any of my email or log into any services that are nice enough to not send your passwords around unencrypted. Austin Davis did allow https though so I can at least get to email and other useful services. Neither allowed VPN tunnels or SSH or anything, so there's no real way I can work from the library unless I'm just doing doc or Windows-only work.
  3. The library has a subscription to Library Edition so I can do world-wide genealogy research for free (instead of paying $30 a month). You can only access the service from a library computer though. I'm not sure how I can save copies of historical documents (birth/death records, censuses, etc.) using a library computer. If I can sort that out, it'll be really sweet. I sat there with my laptop open using my own account (expired but you can still edit trees) to edit my tree while I used the library's account to do research.
  4. Our library subscribes to Overdrive Digital Library Reserve, a service that lets you download audio books and music. (They also support video and ebooks but I guess our library didn't subscribe to that). The audio is Windows Media only and of course it's wrapped in digital rights management (DRM). As long as you're going to only listen to the books at a Windows PC, that would work. I had problems getting it working on my laptop but got past that. PocketTunes on my Treo can't seem to get the rights to play the files at all. My SanDisk Sansa Express plays the files fine but no iPod can play them at all. Some audio books have the option to burn to CD but that's not very practical for a 7 hour audio book. The DRM-ed audio books expire after one week which is pretty short for something like the 18-hour A Short History of Nearly Everything.
  5. The hold system hasn't changed in years, but it still works great. I can get online and find the books I'm interested in. I place a hold and when they're available anywhere in the system, they get sent to the branch of my choice so I can pick them up whenever I'm there. I used to use this all the time. Even if the book was available at the branch I go to, I can place a hold to reserve it and avoid the hassle of searching for it (or remembering to go get it). This works great if you stop by the branch regularly like once a week.
As I mentioned in my comment below, I was able to hit's library edition from my own laptop. That let me save historical documents to my own laptop easily. Or at least it would be easy if it wasn't being so slow. Both times I've tried the library edition, queries have been a lot slower than they usually are for me. But that might just be because it's the middle of the day and I'm used to using late at night.

The other day we had some DNS issues on our broadband so I popped over to Jimmie B. Keel to see if I could at least get my work email from there. I'm now able to access secure https sites there fine so maybe that's fixed across all the library wifi spots. I also discovered that while I couldn't use our normal VPN tunnel to work, I could get in using our newer Aventail SSL tunnel, which I guess is able to mask itself as https or just http. It worked great. I haven't seen anything in the library policy that would prevent it, so this might make library branches an alternative "work from home" location.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Windows Media DRM Problem

Today I was trying to get Windows Media Player 11 to work with the OverDrive Media Console so I could listen to some free (as in beer) audio books from the library's OverDrive service. It worked fine the first time on my desktop, but when I tried to listen to one on my laptop, I got an error from both OverDrive Media Console and Windows Media Player itself.

"A Windows Media Digital Rights Management (DRM) component encountered a problem ..."

Not very descriptive. Most of the suggestions were to reinstall Media Player. I've had really bad luck with the Media Player install before. It made my laptop unbootable with a persistant blue screen of death. I never could repair it and had to reinstall Windows completely. So I wasn't interested in reinstalling Media Player.

I finally found the solution here. I went to C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\DRM and removed everything there. (Actually, I copied the files off to a different directory.) Make sure you have all the "show hidden files" and "show system files" settings set or you won't see what's in there. I didn't have to reinstall anything. It just worked.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Single Point of Failure

I'm pretty dependent on Google tools for everything outside of my day job: mail, reader, blogger, analytics, documents, notepad, and calendar. I've seen things screech to a halt around church when they have an email outage.

This post on Google Operating System has some really good tips for using a second Google account as a backup in case something happened to your primary account. In most cases it's as easy as just adding the second account as another user on your blog or Google docs. I need to do this.

Canon SD1000

Canon SD1000My big gift this year was a small camera, the Canon SD1000. I'd wanted a decent second camera to complement my Canon S3 IS. Since the S3 takes a decent picture (for a non-SLR sensor), I only really wanted something that could fill in when I didn't have the S3 with me. I wanted something small enough to easily keep in a pocket at events but would still take a decent enough photo to share online or order 4x6 prints. I also wanted it to work well enough to take a decent enough photo (given enough light) that I could capture those spontaneous opportunities shots that pop up.

The SD1000 is tiny, half the depth of our older dying Canon S400. I've carried it in my pocket most of the time for the past two days and it's very easy to forget that it's there. It's roughly the same size and weight of my wallet.

I could write about 5 paragraphs about the features, but for the most part it's the basic Canon feature set that hasn't changed much since our old S400. So what's new or different?

Face detection. It's kind of cool to see it work live in the preview. I think Canon's is a little slower and error-prone than the little Fuji cameras I've played with at Best Buy, but it often finds a face. I turned off face detection and AiAF (Artificial Intelligent Auto-Focus) since I'm already in the habit of setting focus and exposure on the subject first then composing the shot.

Clock. If you hold down the function/set button for a couple seconds (or when you power on the camera) you get a clock display on the LCD screen, with the digits in cubes that flip as the time changes. You can change the background color with the left/right controls. If you rotate the camera you get the date in the display as well. I'm just fascinated by this feature. It probably took a firmware programmer a week of tinkering to add it but I think it's well worth it. I love cool hidden Easter eggs like that.

Time lapse video. Among the video recording options is a time-lapse setting. It will shoot a video at one frame a second (or two seconds). I think my half-full 1 gig card can hold 4 hours of video at that rate. If I'd realized that sooner I would have set the camera up on a tripod and shot the entire Christmas present bonanza with it. I'll have a lot of fun shooting kids doing stuff with this. I don't know how the battery life will work out in that mode though. I just wish it had some longer intervals available.

What don't I like about this camera?

There's no external power jack. It's not much of problem on what's a second camera for me or on such a tiny camera, but I don't think any of Canon's point-and-shoot cameras have them. The USB port could easily be used to power the camera. You can probably buy a special $50 battery shell from Canon to deliver external power -- you could with the S400. Ok. I looked it up. It's a special $70 AC adapter kit.

Battery. I like the tiny lithium ion battery. It's tiny. Tiny. It supposedly has a long life. The charger folds up almost as small as the camera. It all sounds good but I sure prefer AA cells so I can use NiMH rechargables or alkalines in a pinch. I know there's no way they can fit inside this tiny camera's shell, but I almost bought a larger Canon just for the ability to use AA cells. I'll probably buy a couple cheap replacement batteries on eBay. $10 can buy 2 generic spare batteries instead of $40 for one Canon branded battery. We did that for our S400 and they worked fine.

Weather / dust proofing. I briefly considered an Olympus model that is weatherproof. We have had very few problems with Canon cameras getting dust into places it shouldn't be but I know others have. Water's never been an issue.

Free Shipping Over $75 at Calumet Photographic

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I saw this article on "shopdropping", the reverse of shoplifting, where people bring stuff into stores and leave it. This is sometimes done for art's sake, but what was more interesting is when it's done as marketing. I've seen marketing literature, particularly political ads, dropped in bookstores and other places.

I've had the thought of dropping invite cards for our church in the religion or even self-help sections of book stores but it just reminds me too much of a pushy street preacher shoving Chick tracts at everyone passing by.

But I haven't seen bands dropping their CDs. I think that's a cool idea, especially if they're clearly labeled as free, so a cashier doesn't have to waste 15 minutes trying to get it to ring up. If they're stuffed in the right locations, they could get to the people most likely to enjoy them and help build some buzz.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

We tried hard this Christmas season to scale back on the commercialism. While it wasn't perfect, we did come very close to our goal of not giving just any useless expensive gifts just out of a sense of obligation. If we saw something perfect for someone, we got it, but otherwise we didn't go out and fill every else's houses with junk they would just keep around, unused, for two or twelve years before finally discarding it.

Santa doesn't bring as much to our house as he used to. He never was the major present-giver here anyways, but last year Ann said "I'm not going to let Santa get the credit for the best gifts." That really stuck with us and we got Santa to scale back a little more this year. He is the one that brought two of the favorite gifts for the kids though, so he did manage to steal the show again. The favorite gifts? Each got a wood yo-yo and a plastic collapsible camping cup. I think they played with them half of the day.

My daughter got a couple of Nintendo DS games (Lego Star Wars II, March of the Penguins, and Word Coach), which of course kept her glued to her DS much of the day, especially once she got a Star Wars accessory kit from her uncle Allen.

My big gift this year was a small camera, the Canon SD1000. I got it to replace our old Canon S400 so that we have a decent second camera that's small enough to carry everywhere. I shot more than half of my photos yesterday with it and it did a pretty good job. I wouldn't try to sell any indoor shots from it on iStockPhoto, but I might try uploading a well-lit ISO 80 shot from the SD1000 just to see.

Ann's big gift? I think if you asked her, it was being able to cook the entire Christmas dinner for everyone. From scratch. There wasn't a single preservative or additive in anything she made. At least I guess that would be her big gift. I gave her a cheap card with a promise that we would go on at least four actual date nights this year, where I did the planning including the sitter. Four doesn't sound like a lot to some couples, but it's four more than we did this year (and four more than a lot of couples I know).

Monday, December 17, 2007

Walt Disney historical documents - Boing Boing

Someone had some fun on and found a collection of Walt Disney historical documents. Anyone with an account (or access through their local library) could do the same. It worked well with Walt because he was born in 1901, so a lot of records are available. 50 years one way or the other and there'd either be to few records kept or they'd still be locked up for privacy reasons. It'd make a cool link-bait to do that for someone else.

Better Living Through Chemistry

This might be the beginning of a trend. Or at least a trend crossing to the early majority. Mountain Equipment Co-op is pulling most polycarbonate water bottles from their inventory. Those are the multicolored Lexan Nalgene bottles and all the clones. I've seen the allegations of chemicals (Bisphenol A) leaching from the plastics before but this is the first big action on it. Nalgene has a page on their website with information on the safety of their polycarbonate bottles.

This is happening at a time when Nalgene and other bottle makers should be seeing growing sales. You see, they're jumping on the growing backlash against the wastefulness of bottled water. It's even been featured in Fast Company and now Nalgene Outdoors and Brita have partnered with a website

The major contender to replace those sorts of bottles is stainless steel, like the Klean Kanteen. There's even a sippy cup version. I like them because you can heat and boil water directly in them. They're definitely heavy for backpacking, but not much heavier than the Lexan bottles. Besides, most bottles like this will never be taken camping anyways.

I'm interested in watching how both of these ideas (toxic plastic bottles and the wastefulness of bottled water) spread and if they can cross the tipping point. They aren't new ideas so I'm guessing they'll linger around, never making it to the majority, unless something absolutely sensational happens involving Brittney Spears and bottled water.

Update: Outside Magazine's Gear Guy answered this question: "Should I follow MEC’s lead and get rid of my polycarbonate water bottles?" His answer? Maybe.

Stainless Steel Nalgene Camping BottleUpdate: I found the stainless steel bottle I'd been looking for. The Guyot Designs "The Standard". It's shaped and dimensioned just like a the popular Nalgene bottles but it's stainless steel. Reusable Bags and Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) sell them for around $20.

Update: I got to thinking. Why the uproar over polycarbonate water bottles, particularly Nalgene's, when there's no mention of all the polycarbonate bowls and other kitchenware. If the BPA leaching is worse with hot liquids, surely using a polycarbonate bowl for things like soup would be pretty bad. Sure enough. Even though I didn't notice it, the initial notice from MEC was that they are pulling bottles and bowls made of polycarbonate.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Warrick Dunn

I can't really figure out what to say about Warrick here. If you don't know his story, you should. I remember first hearing it when he was at Florida State. It makes the Vick stupidity look even more petty. Earlier this fall he finally went to prison to meet one of the men that killed his mother: Bucs: Confronting his pain. He's a bigger man than I am.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Rejecting Christmas

Here's an interesting article about Christmas. I knew that Christmas today is a heap of commercialization piled on mostly pagan roots. But what I thought I had known before this article is that a century ago, Christmas just wasn't a big deal for Christians. It was mostly a non-event. But the article makes the point that it wasn't a non-event. Most protestant denominations actively fought against observing Christmas. Interesting.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Solaris on the IBM Mainframe

Who would have ever believed it? Solaris running on IBM mainframe hardware. Here's a series of video demos booting Open Solaris on zSeries.

This is particularly funny to me because we've now migrated some of our development load to a FLEX-ES machine. So on that machine, we're already running z/OS and zLinux on an emulator that's running on a Linux host.

In related news, there are new episodes (4 through 6) of Mainframe: The Art of the Sale on YouTube. It's like watching an episode of The Office set at IBM.

Find out what's on Clearance at ThinkGeek!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Blink (the game)

I finally started playing Blink. It's a card game with pretty simple rules. I thought it sounded a lot like Set from the description, but the play is different. You have 3 cards in your hand and play on two stacks, matching one of three characteristics: shape, number, or color. It's billed as "The World's Fastest Game" and it really does go quick. Even with the kids, a game doesn't last more than 2 minutes unless we play a "let's take turns" variation. When I play now my biggest limitation is getting cards from my draw pile into my hand fast enough without dropping one.

The kids (8 and 4) are pretty good at the game. Since you can handicap the game by giving each player more or less cards to play through, you can keep it competitive and adapt the difficulty as people learn.

The game's about $5 and is in an end cap with the Uno decks and poker chips at every Target or Walmart I've been to. You can even get it in a special Bible Edition with different shapes on the cards. I tempted to get a Bible Edition and mix the cards in with a standard set for more difficulty and variety.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

How to Change the World: Ten Ways to Use LinkedIn

After seeing the news that LinkedIn is going to open up their platform a little to allow some third-party apps, I found Guy Kawasaki's old post about Ten Ways to Use LinkedIn and it covered some great points. My LinkedIn profile is the top search result for my name. It's even higher than my own domain,

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Today I finally made good on my plans to take the kids geocaching. I've had a GPS for almost a year now. I bought it for a bunch of reasons, but one was to go geocaching with the kids, particularly our oldest. We tried one cache at Lake Park a little while ago but weren't ready to stomp through the brush off-trail to find it.

So this afternoon I set out with both kids and a GPS loaded with cache coordinates. We went to Lake Rogers Park, a nice but pretty undeveloped park near us. There is a cache right near the trailhead, but we never found it after two passes. It was awfully busy so we kept having to stop searching. We'll get it eventually.

We finally found our first cache about 1/6th of the way around the loop trail. We walked past it twice before we found it. An ammo can full of bandaids. We signed the log, took a picture, and kept hunting. But we finally found one.

The second cache was another ammo can. This is the one the kids won't stop talking about because it had toys in it. I'd only remembered to bring one McDonald's toy, so I only let them trade it for one thing. Now they make me carry a half-dozen toys in case we find another one where we can trade.

The next cache was a two-part cache. The first part was just a laminated tag that gave the location of the second part, which was further around the loop trail. By the time we'd gotten close to it, we needed to hustle if we were gonna get out of the park by dark, so we only got the first part for now.

We passed two other caches that we couldn't find after a good bit of searching, but we did find one more small one. We barely made it out of the park by dark.

So we had our first geocaching success. The kids enjoyed it and barely seemed to notice the miles they put in hiking. They definitely want to do it again.

I was surprised how difficult it was, because the GPS could rarely get a precision better than 20 feet. So if I was supposed to be right on top of the cache, it could be anywhere within 20 feet of me. That doesn't sound like much until you're looking for a microcache the size of a keychain or you're in thick woods.


Seeing this post about a guy trying to spend a week in the Mall of America reminded me of the time at Georgia Tech that a friend and I tried to ride MARTA, the Atlanta "subway", to every stop in the system. It didn't sound that crazy at the time. MARTA is basically two lines with (then) about 30 stops. We figured it would take us a couple hours.

By the time we got to the end of the east line we were bored to tears. We scrapped the idea. I'm trying to imagine a week in a mall.

Need a Divorce Lawyer in Tampa?

A friend of ours, Roberta Kohn, has expanded her primarily real estate practice to include family / divorce law. She hated taking on divorce cases as much as I hate thinking about someone I know needing a divorce lawyer. But if you need one, you really need a good one, and Roberta is one of the best. I've known too many friends that got screwed in their divorces particularly when kids are involved. You need good representation.

She can also do the closing on your house. And make a mean margarita when you're done.

Law Offices of Roberta Kohn, PA, Family and Real Estate Law

Friday, December 07, 2007

Google Chart API

Pacman vs Not PacmanI saw on the Google Operating System blog that Google has opened up their chart generating service a little, so you can render quick charts just using a URL. I'm sure more charts will start showing up in mashups now.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Amazing Race Kids Activities

I've gotten a couple queries about the activities we used for our "Amazing Race" nights at Detour, our Wednesday night children's ministry. Since I recently went through the photos from that time, I thought I should try to make a more complete list. Credit for most if not all of these ideas really belongs to Sarah Morris.

Week 1:
  • From a table filled with stuff, locate one particular item (I think a printed word) and point it out to a judge
  • One team member eats a jar of baby food. We were nice and had fruit not peas. For the teams that lagged behind this got shortened to five spoonfuls.
  • One team member pushes / pulls a stack of chairs across the room. This was harder than we thought. You should test the size of the stack with one of the smallest kids.
  • One person from the team finds a specific verse in the Bible and sculpts the 3rd word of the verse from Playdoh for the team while they try to guess what it is.
  • Given a sample greeting card and supplies, make an identical card (for nursing home residents)
Week 2:
  • From a list of 30 names, circle the one that is not a book in the Bible
  • From a table filled with toys, find one specific item and write down the location for a judge
  • Balance a pencil on your nose for 30 seconds
  • One team member eats a spoon full of mustard
  • Take a popsicle stick and wrap it completely in yarn
  • Something where the one team member got dressed as a Bible character and had to recite something. I can't remember exactly what this was, but it was funny to watch.
Week 3:
  • Untie a rope with a dozen knots in it
  • Unscramble 12 church-related word scrambles
  • One team member stands on their head (against the wall or with someone holding their feet) while the others recite /sing something
  • One team member eats a pack of pudding, fed to him by the rest of the team, with spoons in their mouths, and with everyone's hands behind their back. One of the funniest activities. Amazingly not very messy.
  • A three-legged race down the hall
  • The team got 5 balloons and had to pop them by sitting on them. The lighter kids couldn't pop them and needed some help.
  • From a bowl full of eggs, the team must pick one at a time and crack it open until they find a hard-boiled one. I didn't get to watch (or photograph) this but I heard it was probably the most disgusting activity we had.
Week 4:
  • The team solves a Bible-themed word search
  • The rest of the team wraps one team member completely in toilet paper. The judging of "completely" got looser for the slower teams.
  • Each team members puts Vaseline on their face and uses cotton balls to make a beard. Really funny to watch (and photograph) but probably the messiest activity we did.
  • Given a stack of magazines, the team cuts out and glues letters on paper to spell Jesus.
  • Make a balloon animal. Judging of "animal" got looser for slower teams.
  • One team member drinks a small baby bottle full of water. This took fooorrrrevvveeerrr. You should test this with a kid and consider use a small amount of water like a quarter of the bottle. Great photos of teams standing around in frustration watching one poor kid try to suck down a whole bottle through a pinhole.
Week 5:
  • Assemble a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle. This took too long, probably nearly 10 minutes per team, even with the whole team working and adults helping. The kids were ready to explode.
  • One team member drinks a small amount of pickle juice. We even watered it down. This was the only time we ever had a kid puke from an activity.
  • String 25 buttons on a string
  • Walk down the hall holding a spoon in their mouth with a pom pom ball on it without dropping it
We had a couple challenges every week, besides just coming up with ideas. The kids, especially the older ones, could just blow through challenges much quicker than we thought. So we made sure to add activities that would have to slow them down like word searches and puzzles. Then we had teams falling way behind that wouldn't finish without help. It's very tough to work out a balance for everyone. What I'll do when we do this again is make sure to have some adjustable difficulty so we can slow down the fast teams without stopping the slower teams. Things like having a hard and easy version of a word search or word scramble or having a 100 piece and a 25 piece jigsaw puzzle would accomplish that. That takes a little more instruction for the volunteers though.

Speaking of volunteers, this activity can be very volunteer intensive. The setup (and teardown) took a lot of work of course. We (Sarah) had to walk through and make sure that the clues the team receive sent them to the right rooms in the right order. There also had to be adequate instructions so that any volunteer could walk in and run the activity. During the activity we often needed volunteers in 3 or more rooms at a time. If you do this, you'll definitely want to have one or more designated photographers. Some of our funniest photos came from these nights.

One challenge we had was with the competitive aspect of the activity. We had a couple kids get frustrated with "losing" but the majority of them were having too much fun to worry about that. The bigger problem was with the fast teams of older kids. They were so competitive that every week we had accusations of cheating. That wasn't fun to deal with. Especially since everyone got the same prizes at the end.

When we did this activity last year it was only one of several activities kids could sign up for at the time. We had about 5 to 6 teams of 3 kids each week and that was a good number. We tried to limit it to kids that were 2nd to 5th grade so they were decent readers and could understand and follow the directions.

Update: Peppers and Pollywogs has a list of activity ideas meant for birthday parties.

Update: I created a quick hopefully non-infringing logo for this blog post, using this photo as a base. You're free to use it for your own personal use as long as it is clear that this is not affiliated with The Amazing Race television show.

[The Amazing Race is a trademark of CBS or the production company for the show. I was told that we were cleared to use the term "Amazing Race" as long as it wasn't The Amazing Race and we did not use a logo from the show.]

Detour Talent Show and Christmas Party

Tonight we had a Christmas Party at Detour (our Wednesday night children's ministry). This year we tried something a little different: A talent show. No prizes or awards or judgement. Just kids showing off their talents. We had the usual piano playing, singing, dancing and boys telling jokes. A couple gymnastics. A karate comedy routine. A yo-yo routine. A singing dog. Kids with last-second stage fright. It was a kid's talent show all right.

But what amazed me was how many people turned out. Not just kids, but parents. We had almost 50% more than our usual number of kids and this is the time of year that our attendance usually drops. We'll definitely have to try the talent show idea again. It was no where near the amount of prep time of our other special event nights. The only thing I didn't like about it was that it didn't really give kids or parents a feel for what we normally do at Detour. Something like Adventure Night or the two twists on "PJ night" we've done (have to blog about those) are a lot closer to our typical activities.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Wild Life College

I came across this NY Times article about a couple colleges that are offering essentially a "semester in the woods" where students live in a remote location. Well, as remote as the Adirondacks can be, I suppose. Imagine learning differential equations in a small class setting studying in a yurt. That might be the perfect thing for the male college student struggling with an ADD label.

Use Google Earth to Learn the Stars

Following up on my earlier post about learning the stars, Google Earth now has a sky view that lets you interactively explore a virtual sky.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Luke McCown

It was great to see Luke McCown do great today. 29 of 37 for 313 yards, 2 TDs and 1 interception. Luke spoke at our church's Sports Camp two summers ago and hung out afterwards, signed shirts, and talked with the kids (and dads). The next day at practice he tore his ACL and could have easily never played another down in the NFL. The kids at camp made him a big get well card.

At the time it didn't make for a very inspirational story for the kids. See kids, if you work hard, stay out of trouble, go to church, and accept Christ, you too can have a career-threatening knee injury. So I was glad to see Luke have a great day today. I sure would love to see him back at our Sports Camp again this summer.